How the media’s unfolding-election narrative serves Trump

It is now vanishingly unlikely that President Trump has won the election. Joe Biden has, since Wednesday now, sat stubbornly frozen on 253 or 264 confirmed Electoral College votes, depending on which outlets you follow. Yesterday, as newly-counted votes narrowed Biden’s hold on Arizona, Fox and the Associated Press stood by their Tuesday-night calls, even as some Fox commentators cast their doubt; other newsrooms waited. In Nevada, well-respected observers said they’d seen enough to believe that Biden will win there, which posed both an opportunity and a predicament: if Fox or the AP called Nevada, they’d put Biden over the top; if other outlets did, they’d be leaving Americans to do confused math, adding up electoral votes from different news sources. As Thursday ground on interminably, no one called Nevada, and cable news increasingly focused on the narrowing counts in Pennsylvania and Georgia. In the latter state, Biden’s tally crawled closer to Trump’s, a few hundred votes at a time, until, at 2:30am Eastern this morning, Biden was ahead. Still no call yet.

As the world watched the ongoing vote counts, Trump sought repeatedly to undermine them. He posted a string of deranged—and utterly baseless—tweets about voter fraud; after Twitter hid them behind warning labels, he sent out an all-caps, tweet-like missive in a campaign email, which some reporters tweeted out. (Twitter didn’t block the screenshots.) A little before 7pm, Trump went to the White House briefing room to give a statement. “That is the president of the United States,” Anderson Cooper said on CNN. “That is the most powerful person in the world, and we see him, like an obese turtle on his back, flailing in the hot sun, realizing his time is over. But he just hasn’t accepted it, and he wants to take everybody down with him, including this country.” Nevertheless, CNN carried the whole address live, with chyrons that conveyed varying degrees of skepticism. (“Without any evidence, Trump says he’s being cheated” was passable; “Defiant Trump claims he’s being cheated” and “Trump blames polls for current election status” were not.) Every other network bar Fox cut away—MSNBC did so after about forty seconds—and media-watchers treated the decisions to do so as a big deal. But we all knew what Trump was going to say. It’s an indictment of any network that carried the address at all.

Related: What the polls show, and the press missed, again

As with so much of the Trump administration, yesterday had a Groundhog Day quality. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Trump had given a speech full of bogus claims that every network carried live; in that case, MSNBC and NBC were the only networks to cut away. At the time, Rick Santorum, a CNN pundit and former Republican senator, criticized Trump and won praise for doing so; after last night’s address, Santorum again critiqued Trump and won praise—even though he said, in the same breath, that Trump sort of had a point. TV coverage of the vote-counting was circular as well. CNN, in particular, maintained a fast pace and a laser focus on the tally, even though the numbers updated slowly and incrementally. (About an hour ago, CNN’s Magic Wall broke.)

Ahead of this week, we knew the challenges we might face: certain key states were liable to take a long time to count their votes, and their counts were expected to swing between Trump and Biden, as mail-in ballots favored Biden and in-person day-of ballots broke for Trump. As I wrote yesterday, the developments in the “race,” over time, haven’t reflected any active change, merely the delayed recording of data. Reporters and TV anchors have communicated that fact explicitly, yet the rhythm of their coverage has largely treated the election as dynamic, not static: Trump had a “giant lead”; now Biden has “gained” votes and “momentum” and is “closing in,” leaving Trump “hanging on.” CNN’s Michael Smerconish said that, in Pennsylvania, Biden is in “the faster car.”

I don’t mean to be a killjoy: the election is exciting, and the above language isn’t exactly inaccurate, as it pertains to counting votes. Of course, I have immense sympathy for the anchors who have to keep talking about this for days; I can barely keep my eyes open at this point, and I don’t have to face a camera. But there’s a huge risk, here, of playing into Trump’s despotic response to the election, as he falsely asserts that he was the winner until “new” Biden votes denied him. Anchors and analysts on CNN have said that, as Biden is “closing in,” thanks to mail-in ballots, Trump likely now regrets discouraging his supporters from also voting by mail in large numbers. (S.E. Cupp called this a “bad self-own.”) But they’ve got the story precisely backward: the reason that Trump spent months sowing distrust about mail-in ballots is so that after the election he could decry millions of Democratic votes as illegitimate. (“I’ve been talking about mail-in voting for a long time,” Trump said yesterday. “It’s really destroyed our system.”) He was aided by Republican lawmakers in key states that blocked mail-in votes from being counted early, so as to decrease the odds of a quick, decisive election-night tally.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

This week has, of course, also brought some great, brave journalism: yesterday, the AP’s Evan Vucci snapped a photo of Trump standing beneath a glowing “EXIT” sign; NBC’s Jacob Soboroff confronted Ric Grenell, a Trump surrogate, about the fraud disinformation live on air, while surrounded by angry Trump fans; even the Times dusted off the word “lie,” after having danced around it in the past. Overall, though, news consumers—viewers of cable news in particular—got what they’ve come to expect: a contrived narrative that amps up the dramatic tension. The twenty-four-hour news cycle simply isn’t equipped to handle prolonged uncertainty—let alone while we’re besieged by an autocratic disinformation campaign emanating from the nation’s highest office. As the counts are finalized and a national call approaches, we have to now hope that viewers accept the outcome.

Below, more on the election:


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the Times reported its third-quarter earnings: it now has more than seven million paying subscribers (its goal is ten million by 2025) and, for the first time, it brought in more quarterly revenue from digital subscribers than from print subscribers. Conversely, as the pandemic continued to bite, ad sales dropped by thirty percent. Tribune Publishing also published earnings: it now has 427,000 digital subscribers and has seen its digital revenue increase by two-thirds year-on-year, but the company’s ad revenue is down by nearly forty percent, and total revenue is down by twenty percent.
  • CNBC’s Jabari Young and Alex Sherman report that ESPN is laying off three hundred staffers and will not fill two hundred open positions. Disney, ESPN’s parent company, plans to focus more on streaming. Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s chairman, told staff that the pandemic has “clearly accelerated those forward-looking discussions.” In divergent sports-media news, the Post’s Ben Strauss reports that The Athletic is reversing pay cuts that it had imposed over the summer as a response to the COVID economic crisis.
  • For CJR, Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, assesses how big tech’s free-speech philosophy has had to change. The platforms must articulate “a framework that accurately describes their new model,” Simon writes. “For the companies to continue to say they are guided by free-expression principles does not cut it, given how much control they are exercising over content. Perhaps the new goal should be to create an online information environment that serves the public interest.”
  • In Kentucky, Rodney Brewer resigned as state police commissioner after Manual RedEye, a high-school publication in Louisville, obtained a slideshow showing that police instructors encouraged cadets to be “ruthless killers” and repeatedly quoted Adolf Hitler.  Brewer was commissioner in 2013, when the slideshow was last used; he left the role in 2015, but was reappointed in January. Manual RedEye’s Satchel Walton has more. Alex Pareene tweeted, “The future of journalism is if a national outlet doesn’t send someone to look into it you gotta hope a local attorney uncovers something in discovery and sends it to a high school paper.”
  • Grist launched Temperature Check, a new podcast focused on climate, race, and culture. The podcast is hosted by Andrew Simon, Grist’s director of leadership programming; the first episode, featuring an interview with Kendra Pierre-Louis, a climate reporter at Gimlet Media, came out last week.
  • In Russia, police raided the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation—a civil-society group and media organization founded by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny—and announced a criminal investigation of Ivan Zhdanov, the group’s director. Navalny is currently recuperating in Germany after having been  poisoned in Russia in August.
  • And we’ve all heard of dog-bites-man and man-bites-dog stories, but dog-shoots-man stories? The Dallas Morning News has you covered. (The man the dog shot is fine.)

ICYMI: What it means to get the election wrong

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.